ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Near the steps of Schembechler Hall, Alabama coach Nick Saban is holding the BCS’ national championship trophy with an ear-to-ear grin seldom seen on or off the field.
The home of Michigan football is adorned with pieces of paper with pictures, such as the one with Saban, and Crimson Tide logos along with messages such as “Beat Bama” and “Roll The Tide,” that welcome the Wolverines during game week of this year’s highly anticipated opener.
It’s the kind of hokey thing Brady Hoke started last season. And like just about every other thing he has done, it has worked.
Hoke said he brought the tradition that he started at Ball State and carried to San Diego State to Ann Arbor and just because, “This is Michigan,” as he often says, the rah-rah tactic has stuck.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said with a shrug. “It’s game week and making sure that we focus in on what’s at hand for us.”
No. 8 Michigan figures to have its hands full against defending champion and second-ranked Alabama on Saturday night at Cowboys. The Crimson Tide is nearly a two-touchdown favorite.
If Hoke can help the Wolverines pull off an upset of Saban’s Alabama machine, it might just be the biggest victory of his coaching career.
Michigan associate athletic director for football, Mike Vollmar, said the two coaches have a lot in common. And, he would know. Vollmar is working closely with Hoke for a second season after having a similar job alongside Saban for three seasons at Alabama and when he was at Michigan State.
“They’re both great coaches, who care about the kids,” Vollmar said Thursday. “They’re very good at Xs and Os and with dotting Is and crossing Ts off the field with academics, recruiting and helping young me grow up. As a head coach, you have to be an administrator too and they’re both very savvy about making decisions that are best for their programs.”
Saban has won two national titles since 2009 and three in less than a decade, counting the championship he won at LSU. He is 141-54-1 as a head coach that turned around Toledo and Michigan State before doing the same with two teams that had lost their luster in the SEC.
Two days before kicking off another highly anticipated season with a marquee matchup, Saban sounded anything but satisfied with what he has done so far as a coach.
“If I get to where I feel like I can focus on what I did, I should quit,” Saban said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron wouldn’t be surprised to hear his coach say that.
“That man doesn’t care how many national championships he wins, he just wants to keep winning,” McCarron said. “I think that’s the mindset that I’ve taken from him.”
Saban has taken opportunities to leave his job in the past, but insisted he’s done moving just as said while leading the Spartans, Tigers and Miami Dolphins.
But after a two-year stint with the Dolphins, the 60-year-old Saban really sounds as if his sixth season at Alabama is far from his last and he has lost the allure of coaching in professional football.
“We’ve had opportunities to go back to the NFL and have not done it and I don’t see going in the future,” Saban said. “You can make the greatest impact on people in college and we need to be smart enough to know where we belong. I really feel like it is right here at Alabama.
“I see myself doing this forever. And when they stick you in the ground, the only thing you have is your legacy. Hopefully, mine is about helping a lot of people personally, academically and athletically.”
Any team, pro or college, would have a hard time pulling Hoke away from his dream job of leading college football’s winningest program.
Hoke grew up in Ohio, rooting for the maize and blue, and worked on Michigan’s staff when Saban returned to Michigan State as a head coach in the late 1990s. Now, Hoke is in his second season in charge after a much-heralded debut season in which the Wolverines won a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2000 — when they beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl — and 11 games for the first time since 2006.
He has embraced the program’s rich tradition and added some wrinkles of his own. He refuses to even say the name Ohio State, blares the fight song and other Michigan-related tunes at 1:30 p.m. each day during game week at Schembechler Hall and has pieces of paper put on windows in the building that feature that week’s opponent.
“It keeps our mind on the prize,” Wolverines linebacker Kenny Demens said. “We understand what’s at stake here. With him and everybody preaching, `Beat Bama,’ that’s keeping us focused.”
Down at Alabama, Saban said he doesn’t use any such signs of visual motivation.
“We don’t do a lot of that kind of stuff,” he said.